300 (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Whatever else 300 may be, it is destined to become beloved for a group of devotees. The size of that group will determine whether it achieves mainstream acceptance or attains cult status. Distilled to its essence, this is a graphic novel come to life - one of those rare instances in which filmmakers seek not merely to adapt a comic book but to interpret it for the screen. Both approaches are valid and have their strengths, but 300 would not be the experience it is had it not clung to the hyper-reality of the images of Frank Miller's graphic novel. From a visual standpoint, 300 (like Sin City before it) exists at a vertex where comic books and motion pictures intersect.

At its most basic, 300 is a retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, which took place in 480 B.C. Although the particulars are clouded in legend, the facts are not in dispute: an inferior number of Spartan soldiers (generally accepted to be 300) under the command of King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) held out against a vastly superior Persian force (estimated to be anywhere between 200,000 and 2,000,000) led by King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro). Although the Spartans did not win the battle, they dealt serious losses to the Persians which contributed to the defeat of Xerxes' forces a year later at the Battle of Plataea. For 300, director Zack Snyder, staying true to the graphic novel, emphasizes the mythology of the battle rather than seeking historical accuracy. The resulting texture is more like that of the Battle of Helms Deep in The Two Towers than something one might assume to be a closer kin, like the war scenes in Troy.

300 is about heroism in the face of insurmountable odds. It is a masterpiece of images, style, and testosterone. An ode to masculinity and machismo, it captivates the eye and gets the blood pumping. It is heroic spectacle at its finest. Expectedly, the movie lacks subtlety and ignores things like characterization. The few characters we come to know are types: The Great Warrior-King, The Strong Wife, The Treacherous Betrayer, The Dark Enemy. It should be acknowledged, however, that the thrust of the movie leaves little room for three-dimensional protagonists, and that's not what viewers are looking for anyway. They get what they come for: a rousing action/adventure tale that, once it gets rolling, rarely takes time to catch its breath. Knowing the fate of the Spartans doesn't diminish the bloody exhilaration of getting there.

Snyder has dug deep into his bag of tricks in order to make 300 into what it is. His approach is not unlike that of Sin City and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow in that he uses color desaturation and blue screen background work to craft the film's otherworldly look. The film could just as easily be taking place in Middle Earth as in ancient Greece. The men are buff beyond belief, with bulging biceps and chiseled chests. The women (or at least the only woman that matters) are voluptuous. There are bare butts (from men) and unclothed breasts (from men and women). It's a cornucopia of flesh. The film also revels in gore, although not to the extent one might suppose. There are decapitations and splashes of blood, but nothing happens that could be described as especially shocking, gruesome, or gut-wrenching. The images recall not only the panels of Frank Miller from the graphic novel but the paintings of another Frank - Frank Frazetta, the fantasy illustrator who gained popularity with swords-and-sorcery fans by illustrating the iconic covers of various Conan books during the 1960s and 1970s.

The cast is populated by character actors - an effective approach because it makes it easier to lose sight of the actors than might be the case if they were readily identifiable. Gerard Butler, who plays Leonidas, is no screen neophyte. He has starred in big budget productions like The Phantom of the Opera and Tomb Raider II. But his visage is unremarkable and that makes him clay in the filmmakers' hands. His performance is larger than life, full of passion and vigor - just what the director ordered. Lena Headey plays Leonidas' queen, a woman of equal strength and passion (although the performance is more restrained). Like Butler, she is often seen on the big screen but rarely recognized. The cast is rounded out with names like Dominic West, David Wenham (as the narrator, Dilios), Vincent Regan, and Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes. All are believable in this setting; none is immediately recognizable.

This is not the first movie to be based on The Battle of Thermopylae. 1962's The 300 Spartans told the same story using a different approach. 300 is indirectly inspired by the earlier film; Miller admits that a childhood obsession with The 300 Spartans led to the graphic novel. In nearly every way (except perhaps attempts at historical accuracy, which is difficult when the facts are not well known), 300 is a better movie than The 300 Spartans. It's more energetic, features better performances, and generates a bigger on-screen splash. This is a movie theater film. Audiences deserve to be immersed in what it offers.

The pitch Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) used to secure financing is that 300 would change the way "sword and sandal" movies were made and viewed. To an extent, he is correct: 300 is unlike any movie to have previously reached the screen. Its larger-than-life characters, frenetic action sequences, lush visuals, and unabashed embrace of the over-the-top nature of comic books makes it something to be enjoyed in a way that is normally reserved for summer blockbusters. 300 may not offer masterful storytelling in a conventional sense, but it's hard to beat as a spectacle and that makes it worthwhile viewing for all but the most squeamish of potential audience members.

300 (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:57
U.S. Release Date: 2007-03-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1